As Carol Christ, our fearless leader, explained to us that first night in Crete, a pilgrimage is more than just a journey to a sacred place, it is a journey between states — physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In a way, when you are on a pilgrimage you are without a country. In starting a pilgrimage, you cross a threshold into a liminal state, where you often experience a sense of timelessness, if not another place in time. Pilgrims are on their own personal odyssey as well as on a collective odyssey with other seekers.
In their book, The Archetype of Pilgrimage: Outer Action with Inner Meaning, Wallace and Jean Clift describe the various reasons for embarking on a pilgrimage: to answer a call to adventure (one of the first stages Joseph Campbell described in “The Hero’s Journey”); to experience a place of power; to hope and ask for healing or a miracle; to express a love of God (or Goddess); to find or reclaim lost pieces of ourselves; to give thanks; to ask for forgiveness; to leave the routine of ordinary life and experience something new or numinous; and to prepare for death. On this last point, it would seem we are always preparing for death, albeit often unconsciously, and going on a pilgrimage can feel like one of those things you need to do before you die. In many respects, all of these reasons compelled me to go on Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage, a 2-week sojourn she has been leading in the spring and fall for 20 years.
The night before we left Athens for Crete, I put on some music (Gabrielle Roth’s CD, Luna) and danced on the rooftop of our hotel, where I had a stunning view of the Acropolis, awash in golden light. I was celebrating the initiation I had experienced at Delphi and preparing myself for our morning sight-seeing at the Acropolis, afternoon releasing ceremony at Eleusis, and evening flight to Crete the following day. Dancing in the moonlight I felt the energy of the priestess. I was integrating the mysteries I had already experienced and initiating myself for those to come.
The next night, we landed in Crete and met our sister travelers on the rooftop of our hotel in Heraklion under a full moon. There were 20 of us, including Carol and two sets of mother and daughter travelers. I knew my mother was a part of this journey in spirit, and felt her presence strongly at times as I continued to both grieve and celebrate our life together. My sister pilgrims and I shared a little about ourselves and why we were there, starting with the affirmation, which would become a familiar refrain, “I am whole, I am here, I am… ” and say our name.
“I am whole, I am here, I am Stephanie.” And so began the pilgrimage on the beautiful island of Crete, where the ancient, yet advanced, Minoan civilization honored the goddess of earth, sea and sky.
The first stop was the palace or sacred center of Knossos, built around 2,000 BCE on sacred grounds where people had lived and worshipped since Neolithic times (6,000 BCE and before). We silently walked in procession through these ruins, some of which were partially reconstructed by the archeologist, Arthur Evans, in the early 1900s. This was where the snake goddesses, which I was thrilled to see in the Heraklion Museum, were found.
The palace of Knossos is where the King-Priest Minos and Queen-Priestess Pasiphae were thought to have lived, as well as the half-man/half-beast minotaur, in the center of the labyrinth. Some surmise that the myth of Theseus slaying the minotaur with the help of the princess/goddess, Ariadne, whom he later abandoned, represents the end of the worship of the goddess and the beginning of the patriarchy on Crete and throughout Greece, as Theseus was a warrior king from Athens.
What was most likely enacted here before the patriarchy was the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage between the priest and priestess who wore masks of the bull and cow, representing the joining of the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine, or the sun and the moon. This celebratory pageant, attended by all members of the community, included the connubium, or consummation rite, and ended with the coronation of the king and queen in the center of the labyrinth. The mural depicting the “ladies of the court” were likely priestesses, dancers who led the procession and circled around the royal couple. The bull was sacrificed as part of the marriage feast to ensure fertility across the land. These rites were once widely celebrated at the sacred centers of the Minoans, for they were an egalitarian society in which the goddess was honored as the ubiquitous, life-giving force that She was.
We were to visit many other sacred centers of Minoan culture throughout the two week pilgrimage. We would weave in and out of the stone passageways and crumbled foundations, imagining what it would have been like to live in these village centers where the people practiced sacred rituals as part of their everyday life. Virtually all of these sites had stone altars, many in the form of kernos stones, giant table-like slabs, with bowls carved into them for the placement of offerings.
Many of these sites had lustral baths, large cisterns or small rooms filled with water in which people passed and cleansed themselves before taking part in sacred ceremonies. There were storerooms with giant pithos jars that were used to hold the olive oil and wine. Many of these centers were built over and over again after maurauding invaders set fire to them or earthquakes ravaged them. At times, we would feel the veil was thin between present time and days of yore, and we could feel, if not hear, the priestesses dancing and singing or sense the panicked state of those who fled from impending danger.
This introduction to Minoan culture was followed by a much anticipated visit to the Paliani Convent, an old convent (from about 668 CE) and the sacred myrtle tree that is said to be over 1000 years old. Sue Monk Kidd described her visit there (while she was on Carol’s pilgrimage) in her book, Traveling With Pomegranates, and the granting of her wish to write a novel after being a non-fiction writer for many years. The Secret Life of Bees, which featured the black Madonna as a prominent character, would be her first book of fiction. I looked forward to visiting this sacred tree as I have always loved the spirit of trees, and this one was magnificent.
The story goes that after the Turkish invasion in 1821, the convent was destroyed, but an icon of the Virgin Mary was found in the tree. The nuns moved it into the church, but the next day it was found back in the tree. As many times as they tried to take it in, She made her way back to the Tree of Life. And so she has remained there, now entirely encompassed by the arms of the great tree (a smaller replica hangs on the branches for all to see).
Here, we said prayers, asked for healing, and tied a ribbon on the tree in remembrance. We each took a small piece of the myrtle tree from fallen twigs, wrapped the same color ribbon around it, and brought it home with us. One member of our group shared that she had experienced an instantaneous healing of a problem she had been having for months. The nuns who lived there were sweet and welcoming, and we felt Mary’s presence.
The highlights of the pilgrimage for me were the rituals we performed at altars we created in various settings, from a Tholos, or rock tomb on the top of a hill, where we all took part in a ritual to honor our ancestors, to ones we performed in some of the caves we visited, which very much felt like being in the womb of the Great Mother, to those we built on mountaintops with panoramic views of Crete and the surrounding seas. We each bought a Minoan snake goddess to represent us on the altars. We would bring liquids for libations to pour onto them, including clear spring water, wine, and honey, as well as seeds, stones and talismans we wanted to bless.
Our arduous climb down into the depths of the first cave, Skoteino, which means “dark,” was a profound experience for me. As we entered the cave, I heard a fluttering of wings and a white dove, symbol of Aphrodite, flew out. She is an ancient mother goddess I have felt a strong connection to so I felt this was a sign of her presence.
We created a beautiful altar and releasing ceremony, where I was able to not only let go of the hurt between my mother and me, but lifetimes of pain in my motherline that freed us all. We then descended two more levels and ten of us made our way down into Her womb. There we extinguished our lights and sat in complete darkness, meditating. I felt such peace and connection to the divine as I sat upon the moist, red Mother Earth and envisioned being held in her great lap. In each of the five caves we visited we sang songs to Her, the walls reverberating with the sound of twenty women’s voices, as if we were in a cathedral. And, so we were — the cathedral of the divine feminine.
In these two intense weeks of travel, we got to experience the beauty of Crete, from beaches to mountains, caves, gorges, lakes, and plains. We sang songs to the goddess on the bus as we zig-zagged across Crete. We rode donkeys to the cave of Zeus. We sat in the roots of a 2,000 year old tree that all 20 of us together could just wrap our arms around. We wandered the streets of many a town in search of treasures and adventure.
We got to know the people who lived there, simply but happily close to the earth and her bounty, and those who ran small inns and tavernas.
We feasted on many gorgeous meals of fresh vegetables, fruits, the most delicious homemade yogurt, feta, bread, local honey, and olives of every variety that most taverna owners harvested from their own orchards after the tourist season ended. And always the raki, the distilled wine aperitif that was served with every meal. Yamas!
It was always a treat to pluck a ripe pomegranate from the trees that flourished there.
We met women who were hand crafters in the old tradition of weaving on looms, creating intricate embroidery, and lace-making. We learned of the hidden motifs of the goddess, the tree of life, the snake, and other symbols of the feminine divine that have been woven into fabrics and piece-work for centuries. While Greece is very much a patriarchal country, which was evident in the roles we saw played out, archetypes of the goddess are still evident in many weavings.
We danced traditional Balkan and Greek dances under the leadership of Laura Shannon, who leads women’s ritual dances around the world and whom we were privileged to have with us.
We savored our days off in beautiful locales like the small mountain resort, Zaros, the picturesque fishing village of Mochlos (I want to go back to both of those dreamy places one day) and the small coastal city, Agios Nikolaos, where I behld the goddess in the sunrise.
The weather was warm and clear as was the sea we swam in more days than not. There is nothing like eating and drinking at a seaside taverna and then plunging into the warm waters that lap at the shore. At Mochlos, we could swim to a small island and explore the ruins of a sacred center of the Minoan culture that was once attached to the land.
This pilgrimage to the goddess of ancient Minoan culture was a journey that has continued to play out in my dreams and memories. It all started with a dream I had last year of standing on a Grecian cliff and noticing some undiscovered temple stones beneath my feet and realizing that I had found one of Aphrodite’s forgotten temples by the sea. To me, this symbolizes the rising of the goddess and the shift of consciousness that is slowly taking place that will include once again an embrace of the divine feminine. For all of us who shared this pilgrimage we truly came to know She is there for all who seek Her.
Be sure and read Parts 1 and 2 and the conclusion of my journey to magical Santorini in Part 4.
If you are interested in taking the goddess pilgrimage to Crete with Carol Christ in the spring or fall, you can find out more by clicking here: Ariadne Institute